When I was nine-years-old I set my own record of holding my breath underwater for one whole minute. Today I broke that record. I have held my breath for a total of 272,160 minutes.
My countdown began on February 11 when I sat up in bed and thought, “I wonder if it’s still there. Please don’t be there. Please don’t be there,” as I clumsily felt around on my right breast. The night before I had spent the evening at an Ash Wednesday service with my church family, where we reminded each other that we are all dust stuff. Some of the ash from the service had gotten on my pillow and on my hand, which meant that it had also gotten on my breast as I felt around for the lump. As I was chuckling about the fact that I looked like I had been felt up by a chimney sweeper, I felt it. That something was still there, and I had promised myself on February 1, the day of my last regular self-check (I know this, because I check my breasts on the same day that I pay rent each month), that if it was still there in a week then I would get it checked out.
I went on to work as usual, and later that afternoon I made a call to my general practitioner. “I, um, feel something, um, on my boobie.” (Yes, I am a grown woman, and I said “boobie” to my doctor.) They told me not to worry, but to come in to get it checked out, just in case. My doctor felt the same something that I felt, so she referred me to get a mammogram.
When I arrived at the breast center two days later for my appointment, I noticed that the office had been pinked. Pink pens. Pink staff shirts. Pink hand sanitizer. “Fuck pink,” I thought, “pink belongs on crepe myrtles and baby cheeks, not trash cans and mammogram machine buttons.” I know now that it wasn’t the pink’s fault that I was frustrated. I just couldn’t stand one more reminder of why I was there that morning.
I was the youngest person in the place by at least ten years, and several members of the staff pointed that out. “What are you doing here? You’re so young!,” they said. I smiled, and said, “I know, but there’s something there. And I need for there to be nothing there,” pointing at the spot on my right breast that I had circled with a purple marker. I had also drawn a small heart to encourage the technicians. I thought, “Hearts and stars work for my young piano students, maybe this will let the technicians know that they’re doing a good job.” They were not amused.
After the initial squishing, I got to wait and wait and wait and wait in a very beige room while a radiologist looked at the first film to determine if I needed an ultrasound. I did. There was something there. But it wasn’t the something that I had felt in my self-exams. The something that I felt was just the result of tissue change due to a bit of weight loss. The something they saw was nothing that I would have been able to feel.
Shadowing. Asymmetrical. Genetics. Highly suspicious. Those words swirled around me as I laid on an ultrasound table while a technician zoomed into one tiny spot on my breast and took a billion pictures. For the first time in my life, I actually wanted someone to tell me that I was crazy, that I was overreacting, that there was really nothing there. But there was something there, and so I held my breath.
The ultrasound was followed by a needle biopsy. And then more waiting. And holding of breath. I decided that the shadowy figure that had placed itself in my breast was just a piece of glitter leftover from the nineties when body glitter was all the rage. That idea helped me to smile, but it did not help me to breathe.
Then I got a phone call from my surgeon, letting me know that the pesky little piece of glitter was benign. . .ish. I didn’t have cancer, my doctor said. But I didn’t not have cancer. There were a few tiny little cells that were still. . .questionable. So, we scheduled a MRI and another biopsy.
After much waiting, a little surgery, and lots of pain meds, I got the news that the something was really nothing to be worried about. But, after an initial three month post-surgery mammogram, I would need to follow up with frequent mammograms because some of the cells were precancerous.
Today, 189 days after feeling the first something, I had my post-surgery follow up mammogram and I can breathe again. So, how did I survive for so long under the sea of not-knowing? I had some beautiful life-giving friends who kept me laughing with a steady stream of inappropriate memes. I was never alone in a waiting room, thanks to my appointment companions that I affectionately called my Sideboobs. I was surrounded by friends who knew what was going on and who never expected me to fake anything. I felt the constant presence of a God who was OK with the fact that I didn’t really know how to pray about this situation.
Prayer has never been an easy practice for me, and an uncertain, what-the-hell-is-going-on situation certainly didn’t make praying any easier. I struggled between allowing myself to express gratitude and giving myself permission to ask why. My prayers constantly fluctuated between “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” and “No, no, what the fuck, NO.” Which, if we’re honest, is what happens with most of our prayers.
But, today I found my Hallelujah.
When I arrived to the breast center this morning, it was busier than usual–so busy that I wondered if the breast center was having a bring-a-friend day with free donuts like we used to have in Sunday School. I was disappointed to find that there were no donuts. But there was pink everywhere. Fuck pink.
After the squishing, I was ushered to a waiting room where I was to wait for the radiologist to read my mammogram to see if we needed any more pictures. The last time I was in this particular waiting room it was completely empty–just me and a tiny space heater that was doing a very poor job of taking the chill out of the air while I waited in a skimpy hospital gown top. This time though, the post-mammogram room was packed so full that no one had an extra seat for their purse.
As we sat waiting, all stripped down to generic hospital gowns, I couldn’t tell the difference between the fancy lady and the dumpy grandma who had sat with me in the main waiting room just a few minutes earlier. The only things that set us apart were our purses that sat on the floor next to our chairs. A Chanel tote, a Target purse, and my second hand bag—all of our baggage was on the floor where it belonged.
No one said a word, and we barely looked at each other. The same pitiful space heater that had offered background noise months earlier still buzzed, but this time we didn’t need it. The August heat had found its way inside. The air was heavy.
Just as we were all getting antsy and ready to break the ice with small talk, two technicians walked in to offer news. One sat down by an elegant older lady by the door and whispered that her results were inconclusive and she would need an ultrasound. When she heard the news, she smiled with the kind of grace that southern women have perfected from years of smiling through their dammits. We all held our breath for her. Seconds later, the other technician looked right at me, gave me a thumbs up and said, “You’re good to go! See you in six months!”
And for the first time in 272,160 minutes, I let go and breathed. Then I quietly ducked into the dressing room to change back into my clothes and I cried soft tears of overwhelming gratitude. But, I also cried for my friend who just died from breast cancer, and for the beautiful woman who had just received questionable news. She had elegant manicured hands like my grandmother. She wore fancy glasses on a regular old Tuesday. I could tell that I would really like her, and I wanted to tell her that I was so, so sorry that she had received the kind of news that would probably make her hold her breath. She must have seen the leftover tears in my eyes, because as I was leaving she whispered, “They said you’re good to go. You go, honey!,” as she gave me a thumbs up.
In that moment, I let myself breathe again. And in that moment, I remembered the beauty of a Hallelujah that doesn’t have to decide between gratitude and praise or questions and pleas. I found my honest Hallelujah that carries the weight of both my gratitude and my questions, and I let it go to a God who hears me and responds with, “You go, honey. You go!”
What I’m Reading
These books are currently cozied up with me in bed each night. (Tell me I’m not the only one who sleeps with my books like they’re stuffed animals.) I bet that you would enjoy them, too. If you haven’t already read these, then click on the pictures and let’s read together – like a book club, but we get to stay at home and no one has to wear pants or a bra. Oh, and it’s definietly BYOPS (Bring Your Own Peanut Butter Spoon).
Also on Clothesline Confessional
My story isn’t over yet, and I’m so much more than just happy enough. I’m happy to be alive.